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Cortical Correlates of Subclinical Behaviors Associated with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and Antisocial Disorders Open Access

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Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and antisocial disorders, such as psychopathy, are characterized by impairments in social-emotional functioning. Individuals presenting with these disorders are known to have distinct structural, particularly gray matter, brain abnormalities. However, comorbidities (e.g., ADHD, drug use and abuse, etc.) in these clinical disorders can often cloud our understanding of the specific contributions of these behaviors to brain-based atypicalities. Subclinical behaviors associated with antisocial disorders are also present in the general, typically developing population and allow for an unobscured approach to linking brain with these behaviors. The present study investigates links between ASD and antisocial traits and cortical structure within a large sample of young adults screened for the presence of psychiatric and neurological impairments. In the current study we correlate variation in a metric of gray matter structure, cortical thickness, across the entire cortex with scores on two trait based measures three-factor Autism-Spectrum Quotient (three-factor AQ) and the Self-Report Psychopathy-Fourth Edition-Short Form (SRP4-SF) completed by typically developing young adults. The three-factor AQ was completed by 384 participants (153 male: 231 female), and the SRP4-SF was completed by 694 participants (280 male: 414 female). All participants also provided MRI scans. The CIVET brain-imaging pipeline (v2.0) and SurfStat were used to derive vertex-level cortical thickness values (>80,000 vertices) and complete analyses. Broadly speaking, SRP4-SF Total scores were more robustly and extensively associated with cortical thickness in numerous social brain regions (e.g., bilateral medial prefrontal and insular cortices) compared to AQ Total scores which were associated with thicker cortex in just one, relatively small region, portions of the right primary motor cortex. Finally, intracortical relationships did not vary as a function of AQ Total scores, whereas structural covariance in medial frontal, parietal, and temporo-occipital cortices was modulated by SRP4-SF Total scores. These findings complement the current literature on groups with frank ASD and antisocial behavior. Furthermore, they provide support to the notion that these results generalize to subclinical populations. Since such social-emotional behaviors are continuous and present in the general population, these results may aid the detection and classification of neural endophenotypes that will inform not only our understanding of antisocial disorders, but also the etiology (including genetic underpinnings) of individual differences in social-emotional functioning.

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